Eleanor Rigby Summary
by Douglas Coupland

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Eleanor Rigby

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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Borrowing the title of the famous Beatles song about loneliness, Eleanor Rigby is a novel about a lonely woman named Liz Dunn. Author Douglas Coupland infuses the story with the same humor and observations on modern culture that characterize his earlier work. Although written entirely in first-person from Liz’s point of view, the story jumps back and forth in time, resulting in an unconventional narrative structure that is also reminiscent of Coupland’s other novels.

Liz is narrating the story in 2004 but spends most of the novel’s first half relating a series of events that happened in 1997. At that point, she is a single, overweight, thirty-six-year-old woman who lives alone in a drab apartment, does not date, and has a mundane job. Her twenty-year-old son Jeremy abruptly re-enters her life. He is the product of a drunken one-night stand she does not remember. Having given him up for adoption when he was an infant, Jeremy tracks her down and she takes him in. He sees visions and encourages Liz to look for this gift within herself as well. He has Multiple Sclerosis, however, and dies shortly after they are reunited.

Moving ahead to 2004, she seeks out Jeremy’s father, and after finding him, they fall in love. She relates Jeremy’s last vision. It was of farmers who had stopped tending to their fields because they believed the world was ending. A female voice from above tells the farmers that they have lost their belief in the possibility of change. She sends them a sign: strings dangling from the sky with human bones tied to the ends. At the conclusion of the novel, she gets the same vision and realizes that she is the voice. She tells the people they have to choose whether they want God to be a part of their lives, or whether they want Him to stay distant until they have made the world perfect.

The metaphor is not elaborated on beyond this, but it seems to suggest that God dangles death in front of us, not to discourage us from action, but to remind us that our time is short and we are responsible for bringing about the changes we want to see in the world.